The Madness of Crowds

Bubble trouble

We are not yet half way through the year and, to put it mildly, quite a lot has happened. One very powerful lens with which to view 2020 so far is through the notion of crowd behavior – crowds rushing to buy toilet paper, crowds obediently dispersing into lockdown for two months and crowds in a frenzy to buy penny stocks in the US.

There is a growing literature on the behavior of crowds or how collective consciousness works, but some of the older texts are still worth a read. Gustav Le Bon’s ‘The Crowd – a study of the popular mind’ written in 1895 is one, and a much older one which I recommend is Charles MacKay’s ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ written in 1841. It is a vivid history of asset price bubbles going back as far as the time of the Crusades, and MacKay, having published it likely hoped that people would learn from it and not repeat mistakes of the past.  

MacKay would have been alarmed though not surprised at some market behavior seen this year, an initial wave of euphoria pushing stock prices higher in February as the coronavirus crisis was unfolding, and then recent aggressive buying of bankrupt companies like Hertz and Cheasapeake Energy, and the tenfold rise in the share price of Chinese construction company FANGDD because its name resembles the FAANG acronym (its stands for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google).

Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the number of retail brokerage accounts at onlne broker Robinhood has nearly quadrupled (there is a Robinhood Tracker app which shows what stocks are most in and out of favour with the Robinhood crowd), with other brokerage sites also seeing a rise in accounts. Apparently, half of those who open new accounts have never invested before. The only rationale for such behavior is that having bought a stock like Hertz, a ‘greater fool’ will come along to buy it at a higher price.

There is a strong sense that some stimulus cheques, and the effect of the Federal Reserve’s huge liquidity injection into markets are having the effect of encouraging reckless speculation.

If this is a cautionary tale for the Fed, its Chair Jerome Powell showed little sign of acknowledging it in his recent press conference.

With the US stock market near all time high valuations, the Fed openly risks creating an asset bubble, further deflating its own credibility and independence, not to mention spurring inefficient use of capital in the midst of a deep recession. The Fed is also guilty of reinforcing the crowd behavior or groupthink amongst central banks that blind buying of assets constitutes effective monetary policy.

If the Fed and US policymakers have enabled bad crowd behavior, what is more interesting are examples of positive collective behavior, the most remarkable of which is the way in which hundreds of millions of people have adhered to lockdown rules.

Some of the early crowd behavior during the crisis illustrates how crowds follow narratives based on short-termism and fear – such as the toilet paper mania of March – there is also a need to focus on the wisdom of crowds.  A good recent example is the way that the majority of race related protests in the US, and the reaction of the police to them, have transformed from violent to peaceful protest.

I hope that in the future more behavioural and political scientists will dig more into this area. In this respect, one theme to emerge from the crisis is the sense that ‘country resilience’ matters in coping with crises. Amongst the components of this resilience are good education systems, credible institutions, clear and fair laws and a high level of trust across society. I suspect, without having yet looked into any evidence, that high trust societies tend to produce ‘wise’ as proposed to ‘mad’ crowds.

‘Mad’ crowds do not need to be preordained. One noteworthy research project that has come to my attention recently is the work of Gary Slutkin’s Cure Violence project (cvg.org) that seeks to break down the transmission of the culture of violence through communities (and by extension ‘crowds’). Another which I have mentioned here before is the way in which social media is being used to ‘crowd think’ laws, charters and constitutions (thegovlab.org). As the desire for political change grows across many countries, crowds will be used in more productive ways.

Have a great week ahead,

Mike

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